The Albanian Question in Macedonia
The Albanian Question in Macedonia
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
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Report / Europe & Central Asia 4 minutes

The Albanian Question in Macedonia

As the one former Yugoslav republic which has managed to keep itself out of the wars of Yugoslav dissolution, Macedonia has often appeared to outsiders as a beacon of hope in the Balkans.

Executive Summary

As the one former Yugoslav republic which has managed to keep itself out of the wars of Yugoslav dissolution, Macedonia has often appeared to outsiders as a beacon of hope in the Balkans.  However, inter-ethnic relations in the young state -- in particular those between ethnic Albanians, who make up at least 23 percent of the population, and ethnic Macedonians -- are poor.  Moreover, as fighting between ethnic Albanian separatists and the Serbian police and military escalates in the neighbouring, southern Serbian province of Kosovo, relations between communities within Macedonia are deteriorating alarmingly.  As a result, Macedonia and its entire population, irrespective of their ethnic origins, stand to be among the greatest long-term losers of the Kosovo conflict.  Moreover, in the event of fighting and large numbers of refugees spilling over from Kosovo -- an entirely plausible eventuality unless the killing is halted -- Macedonia is poorly prepared and the country’s very existence may be imperilled.

Ethnic Albanians overwhelmingly support their kin in Kosovo.  Ethnic Macedonians tend to draw parallels between Kosovo Albanian demands for independence and ethnic Albanian politics in Macedonia, believing that Albanian demands for increased rights in Macedonia undermine the ethnic Macedonian identity and by extension the Macedonian nation and the Macedonian State.  They therefore increasingly identify with the Serbian side.  Ethnic Macedonians tend also to view Albanians as a minority that, while entitled to certain rights under the constitution -- a constitution which declares Macedonian the sole official language, and the Macedonian Orthodox Church the official creed -- should not be granted greater rights than those accorded to other minorities.

Relations between ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians have long been problematic.  During the 1980s, Macedonia’s then communist authorities supported and then aped Serbia’s crackdown on ethnic Albanians.  Since the advent of democracy, repression has eased, and the government has slowly increased opportunities for ethnic Albanians.  Ethnic Albanians now have their own political parties, regularly participate in elections, fill one-sixth of the seats in parliament and hold five government ministries.  However, they are greatly under-represented in most fields, including local government, law enforcement and the military.  And they complain that they are subject to chronic discrimination in everyday life.

Tension between ethnic Albanians and ethnic Macedonians manifests itself in education, in particular in the struggle for an Albanian-language university, the media and in national symbols.  An ethnic Albanian mayor has been sentenced to seven years and other ethnic Albanian politicians for shorter periods for illegally flying an Albanian flag; ethnic Albanian demonstrators have been killed in clashes with Macedonian police; and the legal registration of what would probably be the strongest ethnic Albanian political party, created by the merger of two existing parties, has been rejected because the application does not meet constitutional requirements such as listing the party name in Cyrillic.

Parliamentary elections scheduled for late autumn risk being the occasion for a further radicalisation of politics as voters divide along ethnic lines.  In June 1998 parliament adopted a new electoral system combining majority and proportional systems.  Under the new electoral system, 85 parliamentary seats will be selected on a constituency basis and the remaining 35 on the basis of proportional representation.  Ethnic Albanian parties fear that constituency boundaries will be drawn to weaken the ethnic Albanian vote.

A 750-strong UN force of Nordic and US troops patrols Macedonia’s border with Kosovo and acts as a trip-wire against Serbian incursions.  The mandate was due to expire on 31 August 1998 but has been extended and the United States is expected to increase the size of its contingent.  The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) is also present in Macedonia with dozens of observers, but has a weak mandate.  At the same time, NATO is considering both a military deployment in Macedonia and direct military intervention in Kosovo.

Macedonia itself can do little to influence the outcome of events in Kosovo.  However, the country's ability to overcome both the domestic and external threats to its survival depends on finding a minimum of common ground so that ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians can co-exist.  This will require, on the one hand, that representatives of the ethnic Macedonian majority address the legitimate grievances of the ethnic Albanian minority, and, on the other, that ethnic Albanian leaders participate and engage constructively in Macedonia's political life.  It will also require concerted international support and coaxing.  With this in mind, ICG has a series of proposals, including the following:

  • Any NATO military action requiring overt Macedonian co-operation is likely to inflame tensions between Macedonia’s two largest ethnic communities.  If, therefore, NATO does decide to intervene militarily in Kosovo, intervention should not be launched from within Macedonia.
  • Since Macedonia is dependent on foreign aid, the international community has some leverage in Macedonia.  Western countries and the multilateral agencies should continue to offer crucial economic assistance to Macedonia.  However, in return they should insist upon greater commitment from the authorities to fostering better relations between the country's ethnic communities.
  • The creation of a political framework which encourages rather than discourages the inclusion of all ethnic groups would be a powerful incentive for political parties to become more than ethnic voting blocs.  This requires electoral reform.  Research should therefore be conducted to develop electoral laws so that elected officials are accountable to the entire electorate and not exclusively to their own communities.

Skopje-Sarajevo, 11 August 1998

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